The Thoroughbreds director struggles to mix his sardonicism into a script about the biggest financial scandal in public school history.
In a dark administrative office lit with cathode monitors and fluorescence, Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) prepares to chum it up with a bunch of colleagues. The administrator, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), carefully gives him a lightning round. All the while, he stumbles, grasping at which teacher does what club and who coaches what sport. This is pretty par for the course, sure, but it doesn’t really click until he’s actually shooting the breeze. He speaks him a woman. From his point of view, the camera starts going south.
Is Frank leering at her, or is he just that awkward? Mostly the former, but not in the traditional sense. Instead, his eyes fixate on the jewels around her neck. This gentle conflation of lust and luxury permeates Bad Education, albeit never as much as it should. Hell, it sounds like a perfect fit. Take Cory Finley, who gave us one of 2018’s very best movies with Thoroughbreds, and give him the true story of the biggest financial scandal in public school history. Match him with the likes of Jackman, Janney, and Geraldine Viswanathan, and we should have a bona fide social comment.
Lots of key creatives are here. There’s the aforementioned cast, and then there’s more to the cast. There’s composer Michael Abels (Get Out, Us) and Finley’s returning cinematographer, Lyle Vincent. So who wrote Bad Education, you ask? Mike Makowsky, a man who here seems entirely content with telling a straightforward conman story. That means not much complexity to the themes—at least not beyond what the script flirts with—and a tone too academic to flow with its ever-shifting pace. If his script can’t fully agree with itself, how can it fully agree with a director much more attuned to simplicity and sin?
That would appear to fall onto the story and cast. The tale begins in fall 2002 when Roslyn High School junior Rachel (Viswanathan) begins a puff piece for the school paper. The topic in question is an $8 million skywalk being built to connect the school, but while she sees it as vain and misdirected, Frank insists it’ll help the school district grow even more. But, going beyond her editor’s (Alex Wolff) wishes, Rachel starts grazing through the public records of the basement to see just where this money is going.
And is it going to a skywalk? Of course it isn’t. The administration—or at least select few—is whisking money to a handful of unknown accounts. Such leads Bad Education on its journey across the ’02-’03 school year, which, in its most stimulating decision, rotates characters between main and supporting roles. Rachel is the one true moral compass here, yes, but that isn’t to say she’s a cut-and-dry protagonist. That throne goes to Frank as often as it does to her, and it points to something much more daring than the final product.
Makowsky, for one, isn’t the best at juggling his themes. Frank’s façade is much more overt at times while the moving pieces, especially those on the fringes of his life. Plot threads curlicue towards commenting on how his personal life goes against his white bread appearance, but these revelations, gentle as they may be, don’t quite tie into the more ardent choices. Whether stylistically or thematically, Bad Education grows increasingly fractured in ways that keep on pointing to its mishmash of a tone.
Save for the occasional scene that really holds onto these characters, Finley stifles his stylized sardonicism to make sure the story around him is accessible enough.
And the reason is unfortunately simple. Finley just isn’t the right match for this material. His morbid fascination with privilege is here as is his caustic sense of humor, but both of them feel so held back by the context they find themselves in. Makowsky’s tone pulls Finley’s direction into something all too workmanlike to make a lasting impact. Save for the occasional scene that really holds onto these characters, Finley stifles his stylized sardonicism to make sure the story around him is accessible enough.
Thankfully, those in front of the camera are much more centered in their craft. Jackman brings many more layers to his character than the script does, putting bluff over bluff to varying degrees. Janney blends spike with spite just as well, and Viswanathan’s naturalism stays solid throughout. It even remains intact as the film trudges through its multitude of endings; for a movie that begins more structurally fluid, it really settles on blandness here. The montages, the title cards leading into the credits, the dollops of irony—they’re too obvious to really sting.
Does that make for a bad feature? No; more stuff works here than not, and Jackman turns in some of the better work of his career just as Viswanathan further proves her talents. It simply makes for something less than the sum of its parts. Hopefully those behind the camera will be able to sort out their affairs next time.
Bad Education premieres this Saturday, April 25 at 8:00 pm.